Relay: Locker Room Talk

The woman’s voice is so often muted by the power

What woman out there hasn’t had to fend off unwanted advances from a boss, a host, a guest, a guy you just met, or a guy you know well? 

And did you know — of course you did — that if you did anything to stop him, he would shame you as “overreacting,” say “this bitch is nuts,” fire you, or give you a bad reference or a bad reputation? 

That masher owns your reputation and he knows it. In fact, he owns the future of your relationships, your career path, and your reaction to food. He can control your self-esteem. This pisses me off.

Ask yourself, as a single woman at a party, who actually sticks up for you if you put a fork in the hand of the guy with his hand in your lap or pour hot coffee on the guy who goosed you? Nobody, and you know it before you even start looking for the fork. You know it is the troublesome woman who tends to get in trouble, not the guy. The guy gets high fives for copping a feel; the girl goes to the bathroom to throw up. The woman’s voice is so often muted by the power. 

The waitress complains, she is fired; the whistleblower is transferred, and the “locker room guy” is enabled again and again.

He gets to walk into the dressing room at a beauty pageant, gets to cop a feel in a crowded elevator, French kiss you while he shakes your hand, and gets to talk dirty on the radio while everyone says, “Boys will be boys.”

The other night I was reminded of a moment in my past. I was the date of a fellow on whom I had a crush. He worked for Rolling Stone magazine, and I was invited to a function. Maybe Magazine Publishers Association dinner, who knows? I remember what I wore because I bought it especially for that night. Expensive, Calvin Klein, silk. I wanted to make a good impression. I would be meeting the other executives, wives, and significant others. We would be at the good table, I was told.

At the huge round table the crush sat on my left and another male executive on my right. (Everyone at Rolling Stone was young, so all these folks with big jobs were my age.) The guy to my right had his hand in my lap before the salad was served. At first I thought it was a napkin issue and I brushed him aside, but he was back immediately, under the tablecloth.

This was 1979. I was new to this little tribe. Eager to have this crush turn into something, I just pushed the hand away, again and again and again, more times than I can count, all the while squirming in my seat to get far from him without making a scene. (What went through my mind in a flash: Good girls are polite. Maybe it’s a mistake. Do not make a fuss. Don’t embarrass your date.) The crush was no help. He was annoyed by my fidgeting and general withdrawal from conversation. When I whispered what was happening, he whispered, “Just push him away,” and did nothing to keep the hand guy away from me. 

The feeler kept it up through the entree and dessert, up the side slit in the skirt and above. I kept pushing and glaring. Eventually, I fled to the ladies room, which kind of broke the spell. When I came back, he had begun to bother the woman on his right. Or perhaps his hand was occupied in his own lap; I failed to notice.

Looking back, I was protecting my reputation (34, in the magazine business myself, hoping for a future with the crush), but amazingly I was protecting my crush from a guy he thought had power over him. I clearly put his situation equal to or higher than my own. 

I carefully avoided the masher for the next year or so. It turned out he was famous for this misbehavior. After the crush and I parted ways, and the masher stayed on the masthead at Rolling Stone, I ran into a number of women with similar stories to tell. Gender war stories. That might what be what gets talked about in the women’s “locker rooms” — who to avoid and why.

Why did he get away with it for all those years? Because he had the power to fire, shame, demote, and degrade. Sound familiar? He took advantage of the weak and weakened the strong. His behavior, even now, makes me deeply sorry that I did not muster the courage to stick the fork in the back of his hand, or turn over a glass of wine in his lap. 

Today, in October 2016, I am running that little bit of memory in my mind over and over and over. Would have, should have, could have. Not the worst thing that ever happened in the world, and I have been lucky in my life not to have worse stories to tell, but I still wish I had literally stood up for myself, and spilled something on him in the process. I do not blame the Calvin Klein dress with the slit, but I never did wear it again. 

Who among us hasn’t felt helpless, embarrassed, angry, and crushed that a fella got “over on us,” felt vaguely that it was the fault of our dress, our behavior, or the wine, the music, the job, the ambition, the weakness, the trust, whatever, that we should have been more something or less something. Anything that wasn’t the way that we were at that moment. 

Watching TV now reminds me that most young women who make a fuss still get nowhere. We knew it then, we know it now. I wish I could say things will change. I know how I will vote with that hope in mind.

 


Durell Godfrey is a contributing photographer to The Star.